Since being named manager of Aston Villa on June 2nd, Paul Lambert has been a busy man; Matthew Lowton, Karim El Ahmadi and Ron Vlaar have all joined the club, with James Collins heading back to West Ham. Prior to Lambert's arrival, Villa signed Brett Holman and lost Carlos Cuellar and Emile Heskey on free transfers.On the face of it, that's a 4-3 advatage in terms of arrivals to departures; great news, right? Well, it's not necessarily bad news. But Villa have a long way to go before they're shielded from the kind of serious injury crisis that's struck the last two seasons.
Let's start up top, shall we? Currently, Villa employ four strikers with first-team experience; Darrent Bent, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Andreas Weimann, and Nathan Delfouneso. Graham Burke is right on the periphery and may well be ready to break into the first team, but for now he's a pretty major question mark. Darren Bent is something of a given up top, and presuming Villa are planning to run with two strikers Gabriel Agbonlahor seems his most natural partner. Unfortunately, Gabby isn't expected to be ready to go until September, and even then his injury history makes him something less than reliable. That leaves Andreas Weimann as the presumptive choice; Weiman had a breakout season in 2011-12 and there's every reason to think he'll continue to develop this season, but strikers need to be subbed out and rotated, especially in Paul Lambert's system. Even if you think Nathan Delfouneso is due to take a big step forward in the coming season (and, for the record, I do) that's a pretty thin group; say what you will about Emile Heskey, but the man was more than willing to go in and take a beating.
Of course, a two striker setup isn't the only option, and Villa have a fair number of candidates to play just in behind Bent (or whichever forward that happens to be leading the line.) Stephen Ireland and Brett Holman are both good fits at the position, with Samir Carruthers and even Charles N'Zogbia options there as well. Unfortunately, that shift comes at a cost; though Villa's midfield depth isn't necessarily the most pressing concern, if one of the creative, attacking players has to shift to a more advanced central role it's going to have an impact elsewhere. Karim El Ahmadi looks a good bet to hold down the rear-hub defensive midfield role and Barry Bannan has been a breath of fresh air in the pre-season, but Jean Makoun's status is still very much up in the air and Gary Gardner needs a strong ball-winner alongside to inspire a great deal of confidence.
Out wide, it gets even trickier; Holman has looked an excellent player in his limited time in a Villa shirt and I still have a great deal of faith in N'Zogbia to turn things around, but Marc Albrighton looked utterly lost for large portions of last season and in terms of true wide midfielders that's about it. Ireland and Bannan can both be shifted out to the flanks, but neither seem to be truly comfortable there and give the tendency of fullbacks to get forward in Lambert's system there's a great deal of value in having players capable of defending in those positions. If Villa choose to play a single-striker formation the need for defense from wide midfield becomes somewhat less pressing, but unless Makoun is operating in a double pivot alongside El Ahmadi that opens up an entirely new set of problems.
And then there's the defense; while it's very difficult to argue with the decision to let James Collins move on, his loss does give cause for some concern; a three-man rotation of Ron Vlaar, Ciaran Clark, and Richard Dunne is quite formidable and Nathan Baker is a respectable fourth option, but outside of that the pickings are quite slim. Derrick Williams is due for a shift into the first team and Chris Herd has some experience in central defense so Villa has some cover, but it doesn't necessarily lend a sense of impenetrability. That's manageable, however; there aren't many teams in the world that can go six deep at center back and feel especially confident.
The bigger concern is on the outside; Matthew Lowton and Eric Lichaj look set to share first team duties and Alan Hutton looks set to go far away forever and never be spoken of again, which means the core of the team at right back looks quite promising but equally untested. Left back is an even greater worry, with Stephen Warnock still, somehow, the first choice at position with only the promising but very green Enda Stephens as cover. Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark, and Eric Lichaj are all capable of playing the position if need-be, but a walking disaster, a 22-year-old with zero Premier League experience, and a couple of emergency backup plans aren't exactly confidence inspiring.
To be clear, the problems facing this squad aren't unique to Villa; every squad outside of perhaps City and Chelsea have their weak spots, at least to some degree. But Villa is also well-stocked with players that have had some pretty significant fitness struggles in recent years holding down key positions; anyone that's lived through the past few seasons can understand how significant a rash of injuries can derail a season. The pressure can be significantly eased with another signing or three, or even by some younger players taking a step forward. And it's entirely possible Villa will see their luck even out and escape significant injury struggles altogether. But none of those things can be counted on, and as of now there are some serious concerns with this club's ability to cope with injury troubles any better than they have the past few seasons. None of this should erase the sense of optimism that's accompanied Paul Lambert's arrival, but Villa's lack of depth is unquestionably a concern. If things break right, this team could very well make a push on the outside of the European places. But if things swing in the opposite direction, those good feelings could start crashing back to Earth fairly quickly.